1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Jamaica, Jean Rhys, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 150 pages; 2000.

If you have ever read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, you will know that Jane falls in love with Edward Rochester, an ugly man with a mysterious past, whose wife has gone mad and is locked away. What you don’t know is how he came to marry his wife, Bertha Mason, and what made her so unwell.

That’s where Jean Rhys steps up to the mark. Rhys effectively writes the prequel to Jane Eyre by telling the story of Bertha’s early years in Jamaica. She renames her Antoinette Cosway and explains how she came to marry an Englishman, who later takes her back to his homeland, where she was driven towards madness.

Of course, you don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea, but it does vaguely help to at least know a little of the storyline.

A novel in three parts

Wide Sargasso Sea is widely regarded as Jean Rhys’ masterpiece. She was 76 when it was first published in 1966 and had fallen into obscurity. I know of her largely through her early novels written in the 1920s and 30s, and can highly recommend Quartet and Voyage in the Dark — both of which are heart-breaking, full of melancholy and decades ahead of their time. I was expecting more of the same here, but found the book very different in tone and style.

It is divided into three parts. The first is essentially about Antoinette’s troubled childhood growing up in Jamaica in the early 19th century as a poor white Creole surrounded by richer natives, who looked down their noses at her family and called her a “white cockroach”. Violence, prejudice and madness abounds. The first-person narrative is oblique and often confusing, and there are so many characters it is hard to get a handle on who is who.

The second part is far more entertaining and has a definite page-turning quality. Antoinette is now a young lady who is about to be betrothed to an unnamed gentleman from England — and it is he who mainly tells their story. The pair spend their honeymoon holed up in a remote house surrounded by lush jungle, with just themselves and their servants for company.

Perched up on wooden stilts the house seemed to shrink from the forest behind it and crane eagerly out to the distant sea. It was more awkward than ugly, a little sad as if it knew it could not last. A group of negroes were standing at the foot of the veranda steps. Antoinette ran across the lawn and as I followed her I collided with a boy coming in the opposite direction. He rolled his eyes, looking alarmed and went on towards the horses without a word of apology. ‘Double up now double up. Look sharp.’ There were four of them. A woman, a girl and a tall, dignified man were together. Antoinette was standing with her arms round another woman. ‘That was Bertrand who nearly knocked you down. That is Rose and Hilda. This is Baptiste.’ The servants grinned shyly as she named them. ‘And here is Christophine who was my da, my nurse long ago.’

Initially their relationship is cold and distant but then it thaws into something rather rabid and sexual. But when rumours about Antoinette begin to circulate via letter, her husband loses all interest — and takes up with one of the servants instead.

The third and final part returns to a more oblique style of story-telling, and Antoinette takes up the narrative, this time from a locked room in a house in England, where she resides.

Literary masterpiece

It’s pretty easy to see why this book is regarded as a literary masterpiece and why it appears on so many school and university text lists. It is full of metaphors and symbolism and hidden meaning, and there’s a layer of subtext going on that needs to be excavated to fully appreciate.

It’s also ripe with social mores, political intrigue and sexual oppression. Its Caribbean setting is also important, not simply because of the tropical landscape which harbours dark secrets, but because of the island’s troubled racial history. The Emancipation Act might have ended slavery, but Antoinette, a Creole heiress, feels caught between two races — the white Europeans and the black Jamaicans — and doesn’t like being judged by either group.

There’s plenty of oppression here, both racial and sexual, and while the story deals with dark subject matter, it is short enough not to weigh the reader down.

The characters — the cruel, cold-hearted, lust-driven husband; the independent, vivacious but troubled Antoinette; the loyal but opinionated Christophine, amongst others — are wonderfully realised and terrific company. And Rhys has such a way with language, particularly when it comes to describing the beguiling landscape, that Wide Sargasso Sea is a joy to read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, Jean Rhys, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Quartet’ by Jean Rhys


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 144 pages; 2000.

It seems ironic or pre-determined (or something), because no sooner than I write a post about bleak books and ask you to submit your suggestions, than I pick up Jean Rhys‘ debut novel, Quartet. Ms Rhys doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on bleakness, but boy, she does an exquisite line in melancholy and hopelessness.

This book, first published in 1928, brings bohemian Paris in the 1920s to life. It’s set in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, where people lived in hotels and passed their time in smoke-filled cafes and ate out every night because they simply didn’t have the facilities to cook at home. Women were generally seen and not heard, and relied on men to support them.

Living in this dark, seedy world is Marya, who left England four years earlier to marry a Pole called Stephan. Despite the fact Stephan, an art dealer, “disliked being questioned and, when closely pressed, he lied”, she feels safe and “strangely peaceful” when she is with him. But then he is imprisoned, and she’s left penniless and alone.

An older sophisticated couple, Mr and Mrs Heidler, come to her rescue, offering her the spare room in their apartment. Although the idea of living with them fills her with “extraordinary dismay”, she is left with little choice and moves in.

It works out well in the beginning, but Marya, a deep thinker, soon finds herself being manipulated and it all goes down hill from there.

I can’t say much more than that, because I don’t want to ruin the story for those yet to read it. But it’s melancholy and rather glum and poor Marya seems unable to get herself out of the hole she’s created. She comes across as being rather young and naive, but also slightly weak, as if she feels that because she is trapped there’s no use fighting and that it would be simply easier to succumb to other’s desires and needs. Even when her husband is finally released from jail, she seems unable to stand up to his devious ways and just lets him get on with it.

This is a beautifully written book, and I love that Rhys doesn’t explain everything, so it’s up to you, the reader, to fill in the gaps. It’s only 145 pages long, but I did have to re-read certain sections because I felt that I’d missed a subtlety that was crucial to the plot. I think there’s so much going on here, between characters, even within certain character’s heads, that it’s the type of book that would benefit from two or more readings and you’d come away from it with a whole new perspective and appreciation of Rhys’ talent. (Remember this is her first novel.)

Quartet is incredibly evocative of another time and place, and as I read it I kept thinking it would make a wonderful film. So I was delighted to discover that Merchant Ivory have beaten me to it. It was made into a movie in 1981 and that it can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Jean Rhys, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Voyage in the Dark’ by Jean Rhys


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classic; 176 pages; 2000.

Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark is a beautiful, melancholy story about one young woman’s journey from innocence to hard-bitten experience.

Written in 1934, it is, in many respects, before its time, depicting a world in which women are the playthings of men.

Anna Morgan, 18, is a lost ingenue, adrift in a foreign land, exiled from her native West Indies after the death of her father. She has a job as a chorus girl and travels through the dark, dismal towns of Edwardian England, where “everything was always so exactly alike”, residing in cold, dank boarding houses, reminiscing about her homeland, where the “light is gold and when you shut your eyes you see fire-colour”.

Later, when she “settles” in London, she hooks up with a much older man, Walter Jeffries, to whom she becomes financially and emotionally dependent. She does not know he is married and when, eventually, he calls the affair off, Anna is unexpectedly bereft, unable to understand what she has done wrong.

Lonely and depressed, often ill and curled up in bed, where she “sleeps like the dead”, Anna is taken in by Ethel Matthews, an older woman who is a Swedish masseuse (“When I say I’m a masseuse I don’t mean like some of these dirty foreigners.”).  Living in Ethel’s posh flat off Oxford Street, Anna tries to earn a living doing manicures as part of Ethel’s business. But she spends most of her time drinking and bringing strange men back to her room instead, unwittingly offending Ethel — who is prone to loud, emotional outbursts — in the process.

Without wishing to reveal the ending, Anna’s life slowly unravels and her struggle to become an independent woman in London brings her to her knees, tricked out of money by men and women alike, used, abused and tarnished.

Surprising as this may sound, I loved this book despite its depressing subject matter. The writing is strangely beautiful in its simplicity and sparseness. There is not a shred of sentimentality in it. It is sad and bleak, but there’s a lovely naivety to the story which allows some light to illuminate the black despair. I particularly identified with the grey, wet London that Rhys so eloquently describes through the eyes of her immigrant Anna.

This was the first Rhys book I have read. I’m kicking myself that it has taken me so long to discover her! I plan on reading her small back catalogue as soon as I can.